Is digital school impossible? Image by Gerd Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

5 Emergency Measures towards the Digital School

This article applies to the situation in Germany and is a translation of this article. Some measures might still be applicable to other countires. Therefore, I am also providing this translation.

COVID-19 is driving digitization in industry and many CIOs (Chief Information Officers) are already claiming that Corona has contributed more to this than any digitization strategy. Unfortunately this is not the case with our schools. The infrastructure here is often in a desolate state. There may be many reasons for this, some of which are very justified, but in times of the pandemic it is a significant disadvantage for students, teachers, and parents. Therefore, keeping schools open is often seen as the most effective measure for maintaining educational equity.

In fact, there are many issues that make digitizing schools difficult. This ranges from the cost of equipment, a lack of software and materials, to a lack of skills among students, teachers and parents. Compliance with legal requirements, such as data protection, is also essential. Nevertheless, in times of the pandemic, digital approaches can help alleviate problems with home schooling in everyday life.

Therefore, we need solutions now to help digitize schools! In my home country, Germany, we are now facing a second probably long shutdown of school startin January 11th, 2021. These shutdown may take all the way to August 2021. When it became clear in mid-December that there would be a second lockdown of the schools, I coordinated with schools and teachers in order to be able to help my school on site. At this point I would like to report on the first measures and results that may also help you to tackle the problems at your school.

Please note at this point that these hints are based purely on personal experience and without any claim of being complete!

Measure 1: Cooperate & Connect as Quickly as Possible!

Cooperation between everyone involved is the key! With all problems you should always keep in mind that they affect all students, teachers, and parents equally and that joint solutions are therefore to be preferred. In particular, one must also keep in mind that different schools sometimes have considerable differences in their progress regarding digitization. Therefore, all steps to improve the situation should be carried out in coordination between students, parents and local schools. Each school has different problems and needs creative solutions. Under no circumstances should you initiate measures without first coordinating them with all those affected!

In the first few days, personal conversations and mailing lists help to coordinate the cooperation and determine the needs on site. Check whether you have access to free services, such as the DFN’s mailing lists, and use open source and free software (more on this in measure 3) to support this. Find out which infrastructure is already in place at your school and clarify the following questions:

  • What are the most pressing problems we need to solve? Also include items on your list that you think are unsolvable. Maybe you just haven’t spoken to the right people yet!
  • Is there a booster club? Does it make sense to start one? As we will see in the next steps, a booster club can do many things that schools and public bodies are not allowed to do. In particular, help from private individuals and voluntary work can be organized much more easily and become much more palatable thanks to tax advantages.
  • What institutions are there in the region that could support us quickly? For example, IT companies, public institutions such as universities and their data centers, and other service providers who have experience with digital technologies should be considered. Make it clear that supporting the school is likely to have positive effects on their home office workers. Perhaps they are already aware of the problem and just do not yet know how to help.
  • Are there other schools in the region that are facing the same challenges? Find more partners and use synergies. We all face the same challenges.

Measure 2: Determine and Meet Hardware Requirements

A major obstacle to the digital school is the lack of suitable hardware in families. Many municipalities and schools have considered equipment for lending for this purpose, as the families are not allowed to receive gifts from public bodies. Unfortunately, central procurement repeatedly leads to delivery bottlenecks and hardware for our city that was ordered in April 2020 is still partially not ready for use. Think about the immense logistical challenges and respond in a supportive rather than demanding manner!

Another obstacle is that large differences in the devices require a great deal of effort for the maintenance of the devices and the software (see Measure 4). This can often no longer be coordinated centrally for all schools in one place. Furthermore, donations may legally not be organized directly by the schools. Volunteer work is required here! Coordinate this with your school!

If your school has a booster club (see Measure 1), donations can be processed this way. In particular, fundraisers can be organized and these might even be deducted from taxes if the association has been classified as a non-profit. Tablet PCs or tablets are very suitable for many tasks when used in school. Agree with the school on which software is to be used (see Measure 3) and which hardware is required for this. In particular, video conferences must be possible with it. Tablets with iOS and Android are often already suitable for this and are significantly cheaper to purchase and maintain than full-fledged PCs or laptops.

If you buy hardware, try to buy hardware that is already in use at your school. Coordinate the solution with the school. Hardware donations such as #FAU4FAU pose major challenges due to their heterogeneity. Do not call for hardware donations if it is not clear how the hardware can be put to use!

Should you still decide to donate hardware, keep the following points in mind: Only accept hardware that meets your minimum requirements. Ask for partners in your network who very often decommission suitable hardware (e.g. IT service providers). Hand over the devices directly to the user and make their operation and maintenance their responsibility. Running a lending service will very quickly push you to the limits of your human and financial resources. It is easier to do this through volunteer technical support (see Measure 4).

Find out if there are parents without internet access and think about how they can be helped. For example, there are tablets that enable direct Internet access via a mobile data line. Identify these hardship cases and discuss individual solutions.

Try to answer the following questions:

  • What do our devices have to be able to do (see Measure 3)? Clarify what is needed in schools. Primary schools have very different needs than secondary schools.
  • Which hardware is suitable for this? Make clear specifications of what hardware must be able to do. Reject hardware that is unsuitable (e.g. does not have a camera).
  • What equipment does our school already have? Try to find solutions that are compatible with your school’s previous approach.
  • Is there an opportunity to solicit donations? Try to win over public figures for your cause and bring the need to the public. This is no time for vanity!
  • Can the booster club hardship cases directly? Check the costs for a mobile phone solution and think about a hardship rule. Make sure that you comply with local anti-discrimination laws.

Measure 3: Find Suitable Software and Flexibly Resolve Short-term Gaps

In principle, there is very good software that is already being used at universities for distance learning. In particular, video conference systems are in the focus of online teaching at universities. The use of cameras means that there are also many concerns about the correct handling of data protection. In this respect, particular caution is required here. Coordinate the deployment with your school!

In fact, many schools already have software like Microsoft Teams in place for this purpose. Zoom can also be a solution, but data protection must be implemented correctly. Here it makes sense to involve a data protection officer.

If you do not have access to licensed software at short notice, there is also open source software that has been specially designed for use in teaching. An important example here is Big Blue Button. However, a suitable server must be installed for this. A free test environment for 60 minute sessions can be found here. If you want to implement your own solution at short notice, you will find a list of commercial operators here. If you have a high-performance IT service provider such as an IT company or a local data center in your area, try to convince them of a test operation until the end of the lockdown if you have no possibility of financing.

Use mailing lists to quickly inform students, parents and teachers in a crisis. Use free services and check whether you can use DFN (in Germany). The use of WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media solutions is not recommended. These should only be used optionally and never mandatory.

Educational videos can be published on commercial platforms. However, services such as YouTube or Twitch are questionable in terms of data protection due to the use of tracking methods. For this reason, a data protection-compliant solution should be used as soon as mandatory content is involved. Local IT service providers may be able to help here. Many universities now operate platforms that comply with data protection regulations, such as fau.tv. Ask whether administrative assistance can be provided during the crisis. Often a permanent solution is not possible because of co-operation bans. It’s primarily about short-term solutions. Structural problems need to be approached differently.

A separate cloud solution based on NextCloud, for example, can be used to exchange files if you do not want all data to be potentially transferred to the foreign countries.

If you create learning materials yourself, use Creative Commons licenses. Under CC 4.0 BY, all learning videos, worksheets and other materials can be licensed and reused by others free of charge, provided that the actual author is attributed. Let others share your efforts and benefit from the services of others!

There is a variety of good educational software out there. Many school book publishers already offer extensive material. Coordinate its use with your school. There are also commercial solutions, such as Amazon Fire Kids tablets, that can be supportive for use at home. Unfortunately, Microsoft Teams and others cannot be operated on these at the moment, as they are not available in the Amazon store. Apps like Zoom have to be added to the child profile.

Not all problems can be solved with software in such a short time. Think about which additional tutoring offers can be used. Many of them can be organized online even in early school years. Recommend parents to go for creative solutions and report back on them. For example, tutors can be found through online ads or agencies. In Germany, parents can now organize their own apprenticeships in small groups. Think about how this can be supported by the school in order to avoid contacts.

Try to answer the following questions:

  • Which software is already used at our school? What can and cannot be solved with it? Together with the school, think about where problems exist and can arise.
  • Which tasks have so far been impossible or insufficiently digital? Which processes could in principle be approached digitally? The use of digital media can often bring a change in everyday life at home school. Try to avoid solutions that are based only on worksheets and restore contact between students and teachers.
  • Which software can solve these tasks? Determine what software can help. Gain experience of what works and what doesn’t and inform each other about it.
  • Are there any IT service providers nearby who can help us set up and operate services? Do not install your own data center, but rely on contacts to service providers who already can. Often they are interested in getting involved, as companies also benefit from relieved employees in the home office and positive public relations.
  • What is not possible with software alone? What capacities do parents have? Where do they need help to help themselves? Try to find suitable measures that can support home schooling. Talk about what works and what doesn’t.

Measure 4: Organize technical support

Look for volunteers who can provide technical support to others, as they already have a lot of experience. Ask the parents’ council who could support the school on a voluntary basis. Contact local partners who could help and do not shy away from contacts. The situation is not good and affected students, teachers and parents are everywhere. Organize emergency aid at short notice, but already think about the next steps to retain such supporters. Here, too, booster clubs from Measure 1 are perhaps a suitable means.

Build a platform to organize support. In the first phase, this can be done via a simple mailing list (see Measure 3). For a powerful support system, however, it is worth using a ticket system with which inquiries can be collected and processed together. This is particularly helpful when inquiries have to be processed via various modalities (Internet, video conference, telephone). A small overview of free ticket systems is available here.

In any case, you should clarify the following questions regarding technical support:

  • Are there parents who can help other parents? Find parents who have special IT skills and let others participate! Computer scientists often have a very social streak (open source software!)
  • Are there other family members who can and want to help? The location is not good. Try to involve families and relatives too.
  • Are there special dedicated groups of people who can help? Think of all possibilities, e.g. political parties, students from technology-related subjects (STEM subjects) and their student councils, volunteers from other associations even such as voluntary fire brigade, or sports clubs.

Measure 5: Support long-term structural changes

Despite the immediate measures mentioned, we are unfortunately still at the beginning of a long road. Be part of the solution! Perhaps you have already founded a booster club. Network your club with other support associations. Drive your public bodies and political decision-makers ahead! Impress with solutions that you have implemented yourself and talk about them! Get involved in a political party and participate in the bodies that shape our world. Don’t put up with the stagnation of the past decades! There are solutions and we will implement them together!

Think about the following:

  • How can the created temporary solutions be brought into orderly structures? How can all schools benefit from these local initiatives? The solutions proposed here are all local. In the future, all schools will need digital solutions. In a few months the time will come to think about what works and what doesn’t and how the good solutions can be perpetuated.
  • Should tasks that we now only insufficiently and temporarily be taken over by commercial platforms or by state institutions? The question of whether education and the tools to implement it should be organized by the state or partially privately is crucial for future structures.
  • How can this be done sustainably? Services result in permanent costs that in principle cannot be organized through honorary positions.
  • How can we shape our digital future? There are sure to be many other good ideas that can be implemented.

If you know of other successful projects or have carried out them yourself, write to me and I will refer to these projects at this point:

Other helpful websites

This text is published under CC 4.0 BY license and may be freely distributed and reproduced.

I do research in Machine Learning. My positions include being Prof @FAU_Germany, President @DataDonors, and Board Member for Science & Technology @TimeMachineEU

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